Solar eclipse 2017, as seen from (ironically) Wheatland, Wyoming 1

Solar eclipse 2017, as seen from (ironically) Wheatland, Wyoming
DENVER, COLORADO — Today’s total solar eclipse was my fourth and my son’s first, and despite some traffic delays, it was a total success! Our plan was to witness the eclipse from Casper, Wyoming, where I once worked, so we got up early to drive from Denver. But, traffic on I-25 was slower than we expected, and we realized that if we continued to Casper, we’d miss most of the show, including totality. So, we opted to stop at Wheatland, which was just on the edge of totality. [See map below.] We got there just in time for me to mount my camera on a Benro tripod to catch first contact (no ETs, sorry). To minimize camera shake, I used a wireless shutter release for all of these shots. Unlike in 2009, when I used a #14 welding glass to shoot the eclipse in Wuhan, China — which made everything unnaturally green — I used a solar filter film from Thousand Oaks Optical. I waited too long to order a screw-on camera filter, so I settled for taping the film over the lens hood. Low tech, but it worked. Also, I discovered the camera could not automatically adjust the shutter ...

Making a scale model of the solar system (video)

Some of my American students may recall our attempt at drawing the solar system to scale along Broadway in front of SFHS. It’s not easy to get both the size of the planets and the distances between them to scale. This video explores that question.

#PlutoTime in Jishou, China

#PlutoTime in Jishou, China
As you’ve probably heard by now, the New Horizons probe swung past Pluto yesterday, taking the first close-up photos of the most distant planet (now classified a dwarf planet) in the solar system. Pluto is almost 32 times further from the Sun than Earth is, so midday on the surface of Pluto is going to be a lot dimmer than it is here. But how much dimmer? Well, as it turns out, there’s enough light to read a book, though standing outside near a lake of frozen nitrogen is probably not a wise choice. Better bring a blanket. NASA has a web app, called Pluto Time, to give you an idea of the lighting conditions on Pluto’s surface. Find your location on a map of the Earth and it will tell you the time when the ambient light on Earth approximates the conditions on Pluto, minus the starry skies and frozen lakes of nitrogen that your feet have just melted into. Generally speaking, #PlutoTime on Earth is in twilight, either before sunrise or after sunset. For Jishou today, it was 7:44 pm. So after dinner, I went to the top of my apartment building and took five shots of the ...

Photo: Crescent Moon and Venus, March 23

Photo: Crescent Moon and Venus, March 23
TAOHUAYUAN, HUNAN — I was on my way back from Changsha Monday evening, and snapped this shot of the Moon and Venus in the western sky around 7:15 pm with my cellphone. The shots are grainy, because I didn’t have time to diddle with the phone’s settings. I just let it set the ISO, etc. automatically. Still, not bad for a cellphone. The Changsha-Jishou bus typically makes a pit stop at the TaoHuaYuan rest area — about halfway — so time was limited. The color in the left hand shot I corrected with IrfanView’s automatic mode. The color in the right hand shot I left as is.

Cool! Watch a Martian sunset

Cool! Watch a Martian sunset
NASA link Look familiar? I hope so. The colors are bluish, because the Martian atmosphere is much thinner and has less oxygen and nitrogen than Earth’s.

A peek at a possible future in space

Using real images taken by space probes and telescopes, Erik Wernquist created this awesome short video, showing what humanity’s future might be like if we don’t kill ourselves off in the interim. Around 1:50 you’ll see a Martian sunset image similar to the one I use as the banner here. They were taken by the NASA/JPL Opportunity probe. The narration is by the late Carl Sagan, Cornell astronomer, author, and co-creator of the first Cosmos series. One wonders what Megan Fox, the creationist homeschooler, would say about this film short.

Cool SF short features Rosetta comet mission

Sometime in the far future, humans develop the power to build worlds. Game of Thrones fans will recognize Aiden Gillen as the teacher. His apprentice is played by Aisling Franciosi. The Rosetta orbiter is still following Comet 67P on its way around the Sun. The Philae lander has an electrical starvation problem. It successfully landed on the sunny spot chosen as its best location, but it bounced off the surface of the comet twice and landed in a shady area that gets only 1.5 hours of sunlight every Earth day. That’s not enough sunlight to recharge Philae’s batteries, so the washing-machine-sized probe ran through its primary scientific tasks as quickly as possible before it went dark. Philae was able to drill into the surface and analyze the composition of the sample. It relayed that data to Rosetta, which then forwarded it to Earth. Planetary scientists are intensely interested in the results, as it could provide clues about the formation of the solar system and Earth. For its part, Rosetta has discovered that comets stink. Literally.

Two moons, two planets, one asteroid and now a comet! 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — The European Space Agency’s successful landing of a probe on the surface of a comet Thursday is yet another milestone in our exploration of the solar system. It’s the latest in a series of missions that bring the exotic down to Earth. It’s also the most impressive, considering the Rosetta probe had to loop around the inner solar system for 10 years to catch up to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and the Philae lander had to guide itself to land on an object only 4 km across at its widest point. Comet 67P is more than 500 million kilometers from Earth, so it’s very unlikely any of us will have a chance to stand (carefully) on its surface. But Philae is our stand-in, and in just a day’s time sent back some impressive images. Now, you might be thinking, “So what? It’s not especially interesting. Some rocks and stuff.” But consider that this is a place 500 million km away that no one has ever seen before, a place that has been undisturbed for at least 4.5 billion years, and we get to see it! Planetary scientists are naturally also interested in the composition and structure of the comet, ...

What’s up, Jade Rabbit?

JISHOU, HUNAN — China’s lunar rover, 玉兔 Yu Tu (Jade Rabbit), woke up March 13 for its fourth lunar day of work, but its roving days are over. Last month, Jade Rabbit lost its ability to move. Now it seems the craft has stopped working altogether. Meanwhile, China’s Internet censors seem to be blocking space-related websites that have been covering the mission since Yu Tu and its sister craft, the Change’E lander, arrived on the Moon in December. When I tried to visit Universe Today, Nature and The Planetary Society for updated news reports, all attempts failed., however, worked, so that’s where this update largely comes from. While everything was working according to plan, Chinese media were all over the story. Now that Jade Rabbit is largely out of commission, perhaps Chinese media censors want to keep updates muted. The two probes’ soft landing in the Mare Imbrium basin were the latest coup for China’s aggressive space flight program. Both Change’E and Yu Tu were working optimally during the first month of the mission, sending back data and photos through January. Yu Tu was able to drive away from the landing site, as planned. Then as the second lunar ...

Astronomy topic: Why are days so long on the Moon? 2

JISHOU, HUNAN — China’s lunar probes, Chang’E and YuTu (Jade Rabbit), are preparing for Lunar day 3 of their mission, but they’ve been on the Moon since Dec. 15. Are they lazy, or what? Considering a day on the Moon is almost two Earth weeks long, I’d say not. Time for a quick astronomy lesson. You know, I hope, that the Moon takes about 28 days to go around the Earth. This is where we get the English word “month” from (as in, “moonth,” the way they said it long ago). Like the Earth, the Moon also rotates around its axis, but much more slowly. Earth takes about 24 hours for one complete spin, the Moon, about 28 Earth days from sunrise to sunrise. Chang’E and YuTu use solar panels for power during the long lunar day. But during the lunar night, they hunker down, relying on small radioactive “batteries” to keep critical electronics warm and functioning. Since there is only one lunar day each Earth month, the two probes have only been on the Moon for three lunar days. Each work shift is about 14 Earth days long, and they “sleep” for 14 days between shifts. It is no ...

Chinese lunar rover Jade Rabbit may not wake up

JISHOU, HUNAN — YuTu (玉兔), China’s first lunar rover, is experiencing some mechanical problems as it enters its second night time period on the Moon, worrying earthbound observers. Night comes to the Moon every two weeks, and temperatures drop below -180°C (-290°F). YuTu is supposed to pull in its antenna and camera, fold up its solar panels and hunker down, keeping itself warm with its radioisotope power source. Apparently, that process didn’t quite happen, and Chinese space scientists are concerned the little rabbit may not wake up again. They are reportedly scrambling for some way to remotely repair the malfunction. The lunar lander, Chang’E 3, has also gone into hibernation, but it seems to be OK. The robotic duo landed last month and quickly sent back images of the landing site in Sinus Iridum, to the delight of the Chinese and space fans worldwide. YuTu, which is named after the mythical rabbit who lives on the Moon with the goddess Chang’E, has traveled 100 meters (about 100 yards) so far. Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed report at the Planetary Society website. Universe Today has several high-res photos, as well. This one was Chang’E’s Christmas gift to Earth.

Chinese probe touches down on lunar surface, sends back photos 3

Chinese probe touches down on lunar surface, sends back photos
JISHOU, HUNAN — The Chang’E 3 lunar lander successfully touched down on the Moon earlier today, becoming another feather in China’s space exploration cap. After a short radio blackout, it sent back photos of its approach. Chang’E, named after the Chinese moon goddess 嫦娥, carries a six-wheeled rover, Jade Rabbit (yu tu 玉兔), also a figure in Chinese mythology. The rover, which resembles the NASA rovers exploring Mars, will deploy in a few hours to begin a three-month mission. China is only the third nation to soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon, following the former Soviet Union and the USA. The lunar project follows China’s successful low-earth orbit manned missions, and is a probable prelude to a manned mission to Earth’s nearest neighbor in the next few decades. The probe has landed far north of landing sites by the Soviet Luna 9 and 16 probes, landing in 1966 and 1970, respectively, and the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. India and Japan have also sent missions to the Moon, but have not had soft landings. The last soft landing was by the Soviet Luna 24 probe, in 1976. More details are available at
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